The Opioid Crisis: What Defines a Substance Abuse Epidemic

substance abuse epidemic

Illicit drug abuse has been a widespread problem in the United States for decades. However, the misuse of prescription opioids is a more recent development that poses just as serious a public health problem. In fact, the results from a National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that an estimated 54 million people have intentionally used medications for non-medical reasons at least once. This sample size makes up about 20% of Americans aged 12 and older. The problem has remained prevalent for years. And, according to various professionals in the field of addiction recovery, it has become an epidemic.

The Unofficial Definition of a Substance Abuse Epidemic

Definition of EpidemicAn epidemic is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as something that “[affects or tends] to affect a disproportionally large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time.” Similarly, the Oxford dictionary defines an epidemic as “a sudden, widespread occurrence of an undesirable phenomenon.

Regarding health and medicine, an epidemic typically refers to an outbreak of a contagion or disease. Now, most people would think of these kinds of outbreaks usually as infectious. However, non-infectious diseases like diabetes and obesity also fall into the category of an epidemic. This is because both conditions persist in “epidemic proportions” in the United States. Unfortunately, that same label applies to drug abuse— especially opioid abuse. The epidemic of opioid addiction, both prescription and illicit, has been dubbed The National Opioid Crisis.

The National Opioid Crisis

Opioid crisis statsBack in the late 1990s, when opioid medications were still growing in popularity, many pharmaceutical companies had the medical community convinced that opioids did not have any addictive properties. This misguidance led more and more healthcare providers to prescribe opioid pain relievers— and at greater rates. The truth about the addictive nature of opioids didn’t become clear until after the widespread non-medical misuse of these medications began. Today, healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies alike are slowly becoming more hesitant to prescribe opioid medications if alternatives are available. So far, the severity of the opioid crisis is apparent in the following statistics:

  • as much as 29% of patients who are prescribed opioids misuse them
  • 8% to 12% of these patients go on to develop an opioid use disorder
  • 4% to 6% of people who abuse opioids abuse heroin
  • 80% of heroin users abused prescription opioids first

The issues surrounding opioid abuse have led to some devastating consequences. In fact, the sharp increase in opioid overdose rates has surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States today.

Opioid Overdose in Recent Years

As the leading cause of accidental deaths in the U.S., drug overdoses have claimed the lives of more than half a million people between 2000 and today. Additionally, more than 6 out of every 10 of those deaths involving opioid drugs.

Prescription vs heroin deaths in 2015

Prescription overdoses have made up a large number of the opioid overdose deaths over the last couple decades. In fact, the number of deaths that resulted from overdosing on opioid drugs like hydrocodone, methadone, and oxycodone has quadrupled since 1999. In 2015, a total of 20,101 overdose deaths were caused by prescription pain relievers. By comparison, heroin overdoses resulted in 12,990 deaths that same year. Now, an estimated 91 people die from opioid overdoses every day.

The Scope of the Opioid Substance Abuse Epidemic

Young Adults

The misuse of prescription drugs seems to be the highest among young adults between 18 and 25 years old. There has also been some reported non-medical misusage among adolescents between 12 and 17.

Young adults who misuse opioid prescription drugs are also statistically more likely to use other types of drugs. In fact, several studies have shown that prescription drug abuse among U.S. adolescents, young adults, and college students has a link to higher rates of:

Men versus Women

In most age groups, males are statistically more likely than females to abuse prescription drugs. The only exception to this is in the 12 to 17 age group, where adolescent girls outnumber boys in the misuse of prescriptions including but not limited to pain relievers, sedatives, and stimulants. This may have some influence over the fact that, in adulthood, women are more likely than men to develop a substance use disorder or an addiction to prescription drugs— although men abuse prescriptions more often than women do. Additionally, while it is true that more men die of prescription opioid overdoses than women do, the rate of overdose among women is continually growing at a much more rapid rate than among men. In short, men tend to abuse prescription drugs more than women do, but women are more susceptible to addiction and overdose than men are.

The Middle-aged and Elderly

More than 80% of patients between the ages of 57 and 85 years old use at least one prescription medication every day. Half of this margin takes more than five medicines on a daily basis. This puts the middle-aged and elderly age groups at a higher risk of health issues resulting from unintentional prescription abuse (i.e., accidentally taking medication in high doses or more often than the directions recommend). This is especially true of opioid medications. Certain factors can make prescription opioid medication misuse much more dangerous for older adults than for younger ones, including:

  • the statistical likelihood of co-occurring chronic illnesses in older adults
  • age-related changes in metabolism that may affect how a drug is received
  • the significantly higher potential of prescription drug use among older adults

The Economic Toll of the Opioid Substance Abuse Epidemic

The misuse of prescription opioids—along with the abuse of illicit opioids like heroin—has become as much of an economic dilemma as it is a public health crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that the total financial impact of prescription opioid abuse alone costs the United States more than $78.5 billion a year. This includes the costs of drug production and distribution, healthcare, addiction treatment, and criminal justice fees.

Government Preventative Measures So Far

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has already set a plan in motion in their fight against the growing opioid epidemic. So far, HHS has been focusing on five major concerns:

  • educating the public about the opioid epidemic
  • supporting for research into addiction and pain management
  • endorsing the distribution and use of overdose-reversing drugs
  • improving public access to addiction treatment and recovery services
  • promoting non-opioid medications and practices for pain management

On section of the HHS, called the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has become America’s leading medical research agency in its efforts to help dissolve the opioid crisis. In recent years, many pharmaceutical companies and academic research facilities have partnered with NIH to develop better ways to improve pain management, treat opioid misuse disorders, and even prevent the misuse of opioid prescriptions in the first place.

Help End the Opioid Crisis with TTC Outpatient Services

With so much going into the fight against the opioid crisis, we can only hope that it will end soon. Until then, the Outpatient Services center is here to support you. Our team of qualified medical professionals and counselors will make your comfort and care a priority during your addiction treatment. If you or someone you know has developed an addiction to opioid prescription medication or illicit drugs, please call us at (844) 211-7944. All calls are confidential.